Barcelona, Spain

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A heavily edited photo of Barcelona, but my favorite of the trip.

 

The most important fútbol game in Spain, El Clásico pits Spain’s two largest cities against each other for the ultimate rivalry.  Each year, Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona fight for national bragging rights as the best Spanish fútbol team.  Because Barcelona hosted this year’s match, 16 people in my program and I made the trip to the opposing team’s city to see its attractions and experience its liveliest weekend of the year.

 

Day 1

With an airline delay, we landed an hour behind schedule for our first evening in Barcelona.  Though the flight was a disappointment, my friends and I took the quick and convenient 5,90€ Aerobus airport transfer to the city’s Gothic Quarter, arriving at the Sun and Moon Hostel, our residence for the weekend.  With limited hostel experience, I was not prepared for the lodging’s atmosphere.  We entered the building to loud music and were introduced to a bartender shortly after arrival.  Unsure of what I had gotten myself into, I soon learned that there are two types of hostels: the quiet, keep to yourself establishments, or the community-oriented, party hostels.  Though we were staying in the latter, it did not pose a problem, considering our exchange of quality for location and price, even with the many small, unexpected fees we came upon during our stay.

Friday night was the best night to go to Barcelona’s most popular club, Opium.  Contrary to its severe name, the beach-access disco had a diverse customer base and relaxed atmosphere.  With party-goes aged from early twenties to late forties, there was a place for everyone, be it on the dance floor, at the bar, or on the patio overlooking the sea.  Though we ended the night early in preparation for our busy next day, I could have spent hours listening to the rumble of the waves mix with the beat of the music from the club.

Wanting to make the most of our weekend in Barcelona, a few friends and I had preordered tickets for the Sagrada Familia, one of the greatest religious structures of all time.  I had heard about and seen images of the incredible work that architect Antoni Gaudí had done, but nothing could have prepared me for the first-hand experience.  The church towers over you, so much so that the views of the entire facade are better seen off-site.  The intricacy of the facade was impressive, but the interior blew me away.  Tall, geometric columns glowed in all colors from the dream-like luminosity of the stained glass windows. Though the great number of visitors made the structure seem less like a place of worship and more like a circus, it made the religious house that much more of an dramatic offer to Catholicism.  It’s partial completion adds to its grandeur, making me wonder what the experience will be like when it is finished.  Plans anticipate that 2026  will be the end of major construction, so I hope to get the opportunity to one day return and see Gaudi’s vision complete.

Continuing with the morning’s Gaudí theme (not difficult to do when in Barcelona), my friends and I walked from the Sagrada Familia to two famous Gaudí-designed houses: Casa Batlló and Casa Milà.  We did not have the time (or money) to enter the buildings, so we admired them from the outside.  The colors of Casa Batlló radiated down the street, with gentle turquoise and bright green glass making the facade dance like crystal-clear water.  Casa Milà was more understated, but equally as curious.  Though at first it blended in with the surrounding structures, standing below the skeleton-like building revealed more geometric intricacy, similar to that in the Sagrada Familia.

On route back to our hostel for an afternoon rest, we traveled down Las Ramblas, one of the busiest streets in Barcelona, lined with souvenir shops, food vendors, as well as formal stores and restaurants.  We had been warned of the excessive pickpocketing on this popular street, but I never once felt targeted or suspicious.

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Located on Las Ramblas is another one of Barcelona’s must-see specialties, La Boqueria.  This half outside/half inside marketplace is comparable to but bigger and better than the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid.  La Boqueria boasts sweet snacks, fishy dishes, meaty meals, and fresh, fresh fruit, all available to eat in or take out.  Over the course of our two hours wandering the market, we gnoshed on chocolate covered strawberries, samples of gourmet cheese, and, our favorite, fruit juice smoothies.  Feeling adventurous, I first tried a dragonfruit, or pitahaya, juice, that went down sweet but left a terrible, sour aftertaste.  My second try, a juice mix of strawberry and pineapple, was a success.

After a quick rest at the hostel, we were ready for the game!  General public tickets for El Clásico went on sale at 11 a.m. on the day of the match.  Thinking I had a chance, I logged on to the website hoping to secure admittance to the game.  At 11:02 a.m., I was a customer in a queue of over 5,000 fútbol fans, or in other words, never getting a ticket.  Accepting the inevitable of viewing the game from outside of the Camp Nou stadium, I wore my Real Madrid scarf with pride through the streets of Barcelona as our entire group took on the ambitious task of finding a bar in which all of us could watch.  The size of the group ended up being a non-issue, because the pub that we waited in line for for over an hour reached full capacity before we even got to the door.  Slightly panicked, with only a half hour until kickoff, we rushed to find another place to watch, leaving all hopes of comfort behind and sights set only on finding a screen.

Split between a small café and an even smaller bar, my group of friends slid in where we could and watched Barcelona dominate the first half.  They started strong, had greater possession of the ball, and took more shots… but they didn’t score.  The second half brought Barcelona luck with a goal in the 56th minute.  Real Madrid, however, responded with an incredible scizzor-kick goal by Benzema in the 63rd minute, followed by a tag-team play by Bale and Ronaldo in the 85th minute to clench the lead.  As the Barcelona fans (just about everyone besides my friends and I) grumbled in disgust, we cheered in victory to our final stop for the night.

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My view of the game…

Recommended to us by other students studying abroad in Barcelona, the Dow Jones Bar was unlike any establishment I’d ever visited.  Sure, it was dark, played bad music, and was outfitted in wooden decor like most other bars, but, as the name implies, the Dow Jones Bar had a schtick; it was a stock market bar.  Screens hung above the bar sharing the how much a drink was currently worth with its corresponding percent increase or decrease— Fireball up 1.3%, Guinness down 3.8%.  You paid based on the fluctuation of the worth of the drink, so you had to watch carefully when to buy.  To add to the fun, there would be an occasional stock market crash (“crack”, in Barcelona), when all drinks were sold as originally priced, but just for a few seconds.  Though the bar itself is a relatively quiet way to spend an evening, the concept is definitely worth checking out.

 

Day 2

The next morning, following more suggestions from Barcelona study abroad students, my friends and I went to Brunch & Cake for brunch and cake.  We chose to dine at their waterfront location, Brunch & Cake by the sea, to later visit the beach.  Though the menu options were limited, I got scrambled eggs on a massive sunflower seed bagel and, paired with a strawberry smoothie, enjoyed every bite.  Falling into the trap of the restaurant’s tempting name, I split a piece of red velvet cake with a friend.  With just a hint of cream cheese flavor, the icing made the treat, and it was some of the best red velvet cake I’ve ever had.

We walked off our meal at the Platja de Sant Sebastià, a beach full of sunbathers and surfers enjoying the sunny day.  This was also the base of the Port Cable Car, a gondola ride providing views of Barcelona and transportation to the Montjuïc hill.

A few friends and I had tickets to the monitored Monumental Zone of Park Güell (the park itself is free) two hours from the time we got in line for the cable car.  We hoped that the process would be quick enough to do both.  It wasn’t.  After waiting way too long for what ended up being a tourist trap (seriously, it’s so bad, do not go on the ride and save the 11€), we were late for our Park Güell time slot.  Because some of Gaudí’s work in the park has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, a section of the park receives a limited amount of people at a time.  My electronic ticket would not scan past our time slot, so being late was going to be a problem.

We took a taxi from Montjuïc to Park Güell and ran to the first worker we could find, my arm extended with the ticket.  Over there, the worker directed.  So we ran towards the area where she gestured and waited in a short line to speak with another worker.  That window, the next attendant said, and we approached our third worker.  Holding my breath in anticipation, I presented my ticket.

“What do you want me to do with this?” the park employee asked.

“Scan it?” I replied, confused.

“What time was your ticket for?” he requested.

“2 o’clock….” I reluctantly responded.

“40 minutes ago!?” he confirmed, as if I were crazy for even trying to enter. “This is the exit,” he finally clarified.

My friends and I explained to him that this is where we were directed, not knowing that our first direction of “over there” meant the overlooked entrance around the corner.

“So you were waiting in this line the whole time?” he half asked, half declared, developing his own understanding of what happened. “I apologize for the misdirection and will notify my colleagues at the entrance to let you in.”

Fortunately, they accepted us into the park, even though we were late and it wasn’t really their fault.  I know that this was my one “Overly Ambitious (read: Stupid) Traveler Forgiveness” pass, so I will try to avoid the close calls from now on.

Park Güell was beautiful, and it was worth paying for access to the iconic Gaudí monuments and designs.  Less intellectual than the Sagrada Familia, the park was simply pretty, serving to aesthetically please.  Gaudí knew how to make things that people like to look at!

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After rushing around that morning and pacing through the park all afternoon, my friends and I rewarded ourselves with Chök treats.  Usually donuts aren’t my thing, but I was willing to make an exception for the Chök concoctions.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to, for the little sweets shop served many options.  Settling on a kronut, it wasn’t the best dessert I’ve ever had, but I didn’t run away from this member of the donut family.

We left Barcelona to return to Madrid with Vueling Airlines.  Because we did not know the date and time of the soccer game before we booked our flight, we scheduled a 10:30 p.m. departure.  With Vueling, we took off an hour later than planned and had the least pleasant flight accommodations that I’ve encountered so far.  Though we did make it back to Madrid for the last metro train, I am extremely dissatisfied with my Vueling experience and will try to avoid flying with them in the future.

 

Destination Locations

 

Pau, Amor, Barcelona

A.J.H.

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Spring Break – Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre— you’ve either never heard of it, or it’s sitting at the top of your travel bucket list.  Cinque Terre is a cluster of five picturesque, coastal towns in northwestern Italy.  Though the towns themselves are an attraction, the hiking trails linking the villages truly draw the crowds.  The Blue Trail, specifically, connects all five (cinque) “terres” (lands) for an estimated 5-hour adventure.  Many have recently discovered the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so much so that Italian officials have issued a million-person tourist cut.  Lucky to have been able to visit before the implementation of heavy restrictions, I was awe-struck, empowered, and appreciative while hiking in Cinque Terre.  It is one of my favorite travel experiences to date.

My friends and I woke early and took connecting trains from Florence to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town of the five villages.  Many recommend ending the hike in this town with its accessible beach as a post-climb reward, but because of the mid-March weather, we would be skipping a dip in the Ligurian Sea.  Research also revealed this end’s leg to be the most difficult, yet had the most beautiful views, so we decided to tackle it first in case unforeseen circumstances changed our plans for the day.  Our anticipation was not wasted, for we discovered that two of the four legs of the trail— the last two, opposite the end where we started— are closed indefinitely for safety reasons.  After a traumatizing hole-in-the-ground, no-toilet-paper bathroom experience (go before you go!), and a confusing start (exit the train station below and continue left for at least ten minutes), we began our Cinque Terre hike on the Blue Trail.

 

 

Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza

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Monterosso al Mare

True to tales of travelers before us, this leg of the hike took about an hour and a half to complete, up vertical stairs, through vineyards and groves of lemon trees, and offering views of both Monterosso al Mare, and the next town, Vernazza.  Though I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery, I was enjoying my fellow hikers almost just as much.  The people on the trail were friendly, helpful, and courteous.  There was a sense of community, like we were all in this crazy endeavor together, and everyone wanted to assure that everyone else was having a good time, because each traveler deserved a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  People aside, it was nearly impossible not to enjoy yourself with the warm weather and fantastic views (that is, what you could glimpse between each strenuous step).

When we arrived in Vernazza, the town was alive with lunchtime activity.  My friends and I bought some fruit from a small, local shop and sat at the port for a snack.

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Vernazza

 

Vernazza to Corniglia

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Vernazza

Our next, and unfortunately final, leg of the hike was another hour and a half.  Though not previously reported, I felt that the second leg was equally as difficult, if not more difficult, than the first.  Also, contrary to what I had read, I felt that this section of the hike had better views than the first.  Specifically, from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, there were great views of the towns, but Vernazza to Corniglia presented sights of the sea, my personal favorite.

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It was late afternoon when we reached Corniglia, and, because of the closures, the end of our hike.  In need of a sweet treat, my friends and I stopped for some refreshing gelato and wandered around the town.  Covering all of Corniglia did not take long, but it was the perfect place to wind down post-hike.  Those who entered the town via train or bus, however, were underwhelmed.  We heard many non-trail visitors mumble, “Really? This is it!?” while walking into town.  Cinque Terre is by no standards my home, but even I was offended at the other tourists’ musings.  I found it hard to believe that anyone would scoff at spending time in a post-card, Italian town on one of the most beautiful days of spring.  For me and my friends, each town was like a utopia.  The hike was a beautiful journey, and the village was the relaxing reward, earned with my own two feet.  I suppose it is this difference that caused these polarizing perspectives.

The next time you visit Cinque Terre, consider maximizing your experience by adding even the shortest length of the Blue Trail to your itinerary, for you will appreciate your adventure even more.

 

Corniglia to Riomaggiore (by train)

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Riomaggiore

With pre-booked train tickets back to Florence from Riomaggiore, the southernmost town where we had planned to finish the full hike, my friends and I snuck onto the train from Corniglia and took it two cities to our departure location.  With a few extra hours before our train home, we explored Riomaggiore, watched the sunset from a cliffside bar, and enjoyed a decent meal after our long day.

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When the sun went down, however, so did our good fortune.  With wonderful weather, a happy hike, and too-good-to-be-true towns, our good luck was bound to run out.

The journey back to Florence required three train transfers.  We arrived at the Riomaggiore platform for our first train 15 minutes early, just to find that it was delayed 50 minutes.  We did not have enough clothes, or enough patience, to stand outside in the cold after a day of travel, hiking, and sun.  Quick thinking and convenient timing allowed us to take an earlier train to the same, first station.  Crisis averted— or so we thought.

Arrival at the second station revealed that our connecting train had the same 50-minute delay, corresponding with the first.  With no way around this hurdle, tired and weary, we accepted the wait in the train station.  It wasn’t long, however, before the station closed, and we were kicked out of the building onto the open-air platform at 9:30 p.m.  Despair set in when we overhead fellow passengers discussing itineraries to Florence; the third train would not be delayed as the other two had.  It would leave as scheduled from the station at 10:30 p.m., and the next train to Florence would not leave until 1 a.m.  If we waited for our delayed train, we would miss our final train, and would have to once again stand by on a platform until the early hours of the next morning.  After our full day, my friends and I were broken and disheartened.  Our sweat had dried, chilling our bodies in the nighttime breeze, leaving us low-spirited and lost.

As if a response to our feeling of rejection, a girl approached us with a group of friends.  She explained that they were in the same situation as we were and would we like to combine groups to maximize the seats in a taxi and split the fare back to Florence.  With this plan, each person would be paying close to 50€, so we declined.  We would be losing money on the tickets for the final train, in addition to the new taxi cost.  She then pointed out that if we left immediately, we could drive the hour to the next station to attempt to arrive in time for the 10:30 p.m. train to Florence; half of the ride would mean half of the price.  This proposal was more appealing.  It only took five seconds of my friends and I staring at each others’ fatigued faces confirmed that we were prepared to pay for the hour-long taxi ride and gamble on the possibility of making it to the station in time.  Racing against the clock, the Italian taxi driver sped through the streets, carrying three American girls and five South Koreans to their destination.  We all but threw our cash at the driver and sprinted through the station, pausing only to find our platform, and leapt up the steps two at a time with fingers crossed that our train would be there.  On our last bit of good luck for the day, the train had not left yet, and we made it home, on time, only 20€ poorer.  Though slightly miserable at the time, it is now a story that I can look back on with bewilderment and amusement (and it was perfect preparation for the Amazing Race— we got this, Mom!).  What a day in Cinque Terre.

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Riomaggiore

 

Travel Tips

  • Just go with it.  The joys of travel come with the stresses of logistics, schedules, and the unknown.  Even with a seemingly perfect plan, problems can, and usually will, arise.  Deal with them as they come, using calm intelligence to guide you towards smart decisions and peace of mind.

 

Destination Locations

  • Cinque Terre

 

Pace, Amore, Cinque Terre

A.J.H.